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References to tuberculosis Sanatoriums figure in the biographies of several prominent twentieth-century Yiddish writers. In Yiddish Poetry and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium 1900-1970, Ernest B. Gilman, primarily a historian of Renaissance literature but driven by a personal passion for his subject, proposes we take these marginal references as central focus. In this slim work, Gilman works to see the careers of three Yiddish poets, H. Leivick, Yehoash, and Sholem Shtern in the context of their sanatorium stays. While Gilman calls our attention to a number of fascinating episodes and evokes "the voice of the sanatorium," the book succeeds not as literary history fully fledged, but as literary curiosity.

Gilman's interest into the extended sanatorium visits of Yiddish authors, in part, reflects the abiding desire of some researchers in the field of literature to engage literary works with their socio-historical context. In historicizing a work, they have found that historical material considered no more than a literary footnote for critics of one generation can become portals into paradigm-shifting studies for another. Indeed, the three writers considered in Yiddish Poetry and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium were very productive during their sanatorium stays. Leivik (pen name of Leivik Halpern, 1888-1962) and Yehoash (pen name of Solomon Blumgarten, 1872-1927) both stayed at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver and Sholem Shtern lived, for a time, in Mount Sinai Sanatorium north of Montreal.

Gilman offers us insight into the culture of the sanatoria, many of which cultivated literary environments. Indeed, some doctors believed in the salubrious effects of literary activity and published in-house newsletters showcasing patients' works. Gilman explains that this activity was also part of "the regimen of the sanatorium [that] called for those at death's door to maintain the cheerful spirit thought essentia] to their cure." A photograph of the sanatorium (book cover) shows what looks like an outdoor sick ward. The picture-perfect Rocky Mountains lie in the cloudless distance, while nurses in white starchy uniforms tend to patients who smile weakly at the camera from big hospital beds. It is an image that is simultaneously sunny and gothic. As Gilman points out, the patients' verse provides the dark subtext of this choreographed scene: in it they observe the death of co-patients and wonder when the disease will take them. Most of the material that best captures the patients' mentality, though, is in English, not Yiddish. If only more materials survived to offer a glimpse into the Yiddish version of this story.

An exception to this is Gilman's exploration of Leivik's "Ballad of Denver Sanatorium," a text that, of all the literary work he surveys, most squarely intersects with his theme. "Grey and thin" when he was admitted to the sanatorium in 1932, Leivik would recover to live and write another twenty-five years--often about the suffering of his fellow Jews in eastern Europe, not his failing health. As Gilman aptly summarizes, Leivik was "a poet for all seasons," by turns political, ethical, anguished, visionary, and celebratory. In an appendix, Gilman supplies an excellent and complete translation of the ballad about a young Jewish man dying of tuberculosis in the sanatorium. It begins: "It isn't Jesus dying, nailed to the cross, / Or Moses on the threshold of Canaan, / Just Nathan Newman--hear, I'll tell his loss, / On a simple bed by a simple wall." While mostly fictional in its details, Gilman explains that the poem's protagonist, Nathan Newman, was based on an actual young man named Jonathan Newman whom Leivik met on one or two occasions while in Denver. The Yiddish poem is of a piece with English-language sanatorium literature: the humbling and elemental encounter between a human and his illness and mortality.

But for this ballad, the work Leivik and Yehoash produced in the sanatorium had little to do with their lives in the sanatorium, and the book falters somewhat when making a case for the sanatorium as the best context to understand the Yiddish writers under examination. Illness and the sanatorium rise to nothing more than mete backdrop to Yehoash's important Yiddish translations of Longfellow's Hiawatha and of the Five Books of the Torah, both veritable masterpieces of modern Yiddish. The most direct if prosaic connection between these works and Yehoash's sanatorium stay is how much freedom he had there to pursue literature. In the sanatorium he led a life unburdened by work, family, and the rhythms of daily life in the city.

Sholem Shtern's White House does, in fact, deploy the sanatorium as the backdrop of his work but not necessarily in a way that resonates with Leivik's "The Ballad of the Denver Sanatorium." It's a narrative poem that recounts the story of a Jewish sanatorium patient at Mount Sinai Sanatorium, a tuberculosis sanatorium north of Montreal, who falls in love with a Quebecoise of a nearby village.

Written in 1967--decades after the writer's 1928 stay--Stern's White House strikes Gilman as a veiled treatment of contemporary politics more than a work illuminated by the context of the sanatorium. Gilman believes that Shtern was most interested in writing about the theme of Jewish-French-Canadian relations. The sanatorium offered a Romantic setting, removed from the differences of language and religion that complicated his present-day Jewish-French-Canadian relations in Montreal.

Yiddish Literature and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium highlights a scholarly dilemma that subjects the most typically American Yiddish literature to woeful neglect. As in the case of the sanatorium writers showcased here, Yiddish American literature was often of a piece with the American experience, but since the material was generated in Yiddish, it lies beyond the reach of researchers of English-language American literary history. In other words, the works in this volume might have enriched previous work on the subject of American literature and the Sanatoriums. As one focused squarely on Yiddish sanatorium literature, Gilman's book feels like an addendum to these. The dilemma has problems on the side of the minority language too (or, at least for Yiddish literature--but I am guessing for other minority literatures as well): the category of American minority literature pushes its critics and historians to concentrate on its most ethnic and idiosynctatic elements and to ignore engaging and worthy literature that duplicates the concerns of the authors' English-writing counterparts. Gilman's book makes a sound case that these works be part of broader literary conversations, that they are the product of and reflect the early twentieth-century North American experience.

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Author:Gilman, Ernest B.; Quint, Alyssa
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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